Avacyn Restored: Solitary Fiends Review (Part 1 of 2)
The trope is so overused now that it’s become a cliche, but there’s a scene at the end of the horror movie where the hero or heroes have vanquished the evil that had terrorized them for the bulk of the film. As they head off to lead lives all the more mundane now by comparison, the camera moves in a different direction. It focuses on the defeated villain’s head for a moment, then then WHAM right before the cut to credits, the monster’s eye opens! Or perhaps it moves to an undiscovered clutch of eggs, an overlooked canister of zombie-making gas, or just an audio overlay of the villain’s haunting laughter. In any event, the message is clear: the battle isn’t over.
It would be easy to write off Innistrad as a plane healed of its horrors with the return of Avacyn and the angelic flights. As the lore tells us, her return has brought a surge of virtuous power. The old wards and emblems of power whose fading we saw at the outset have regained their former might. The malign spirits and ravenous undead have been driven back, and many of the Werewolves have become the Wolfir, guardians and protectors. A humanity long oppressed and besieged has taken up arms, driving back the terrors of the night. Dawn is breaking, and as flights of Angels sweep across the sky mankind need never live in fear again.
The tables are indeed turned. The fiends are on their heels, hunted down mercilessly by the vengeance-minded people of Innistrad. But the Solitary Fiends deck looks to prove that sometimes the most dangerous rat is the one backed into a corner. Rather than flood the board with offensive threats, the deck looks to play the part of the control or reanimator deck and drop a single heavy closer. Although that leaves the deck more vulnerable than most to removal, it looks to compensate for this by employing creatures well-suited to isolation and solitude. It also must overcome the ability to be chump-blocked into irrelevance, a similar problem faced by the exalted ability in Alara block. The things that go bump in the night haven’t completely disappeared- this is Innistrad after all- but where we go from here may be the subject of a return visit in a set some years distant.
Undeath Will Always Remain
As stated above, the aim of Solitary Fiends is to advance its board state through the employ of exactly one creature. It has a number of incentives for doing so, mainly through creatures that are at their best when working alone. As a minor mechanical theme of Avacyn Restored is this isolation of the monstrous, so it draws some support through auras like Homicidal Seclusion.
Of course, the deck realises that it doesn’t operate in a vacuum, and that any opponent will likely be attaining numerical advantage straighaway given the cost of some of the isolation cards and effects. Towards that end, its early drops are all cards that can be sacrificed for a beneficial effect. A trio of Alchemist’s Apprentices can be cashed in for a card after they’ve served their purpose, which will often be chump blocking as you stall for time. The singleton copy of Crypt Creeper- a reprint from Odyssey (the set that inspired Innistrad, fittingly enough)- gives you the ability to snipe at an opponent’s graveyard, not a bad option to have in a block filled with flashback cards and things that don’t stay dead.
Our three-drop slot is comprised of a pair of Fettergeists, the first of the creatures to illustrate the power-in-isolation theme. A 3/4 evasive body is a real steal at this price point, so naturally it’s reasonable to assume a drawback. In a deck looking to field a ton of creatures, typing up your mana each turn is quite a punishment, but here that drawback is skirted. This is a very solid card in the deck, and one of your best early options. Look for it to do no small share of your heavy lifting through the midgame, and even be relevant in the end thanks to flying.
The four-drop slot is home to a collection of curiosities, a quartet of utility creatures. Take, for instance, the Corpse Traders. A four-mana 3/3 isn’t the worst deal you’ll find for Black, which tends to have to overpay for midrange beaters. Tack on a reusable Coercion, and we see another way to help you hit the “critical mass” of one when you finally start to play to the theme. Although limited to sorcery speed, the lack of a tap trigger means that this can be done multiple times in a single turn so long as you have the mana (and creatures) to pay for it. One such creature ideal for the purpose is the Undead Executioner. A 2/2 on its own is a poor deal, though the Executioner has the chance to take something with it when it goes- indeed, it can even trade out with a 4/4. Finally, you get a pair of Mist Ravens. A flying Man-o’-War for an extra , the aura-heavy Avacyn Restored environment offers plenty of opportunities to wring some extra value out of the card. Still, by leaving a 2/2 body behind it puts you no closer to your goal of exactly one creature (unless circumstances compelled you to have the Raven be your ownly creature- desperate times indeed!).
At the top of the curve we find a number of offensive weapons. The Renegade Demon is a vanilla 5/3. The 5 power is very good here, and helps activate your Triumph of Cruelty should you manage to find it in the deck. The pair of Marrow Bats are almost as good, at least in terms of power level, and the evasion makes them a real threat. The high cost for regeneration means you won’t always be keep to put them into situations where they may be traded, but however expensive it’s good to have the option. That said, five mana doesn’t make this card particularly attractive.
The deck’s premium rare, Lone Revenant, also shows up here. This is the card that makes the entire exercise in isolation worthwhile, all on its own. For one thing, it has hexproof, patching up the deck’s glaring vulnerability to removal (most of it, anyway). Secondly, it not only draws you a card each turn, but that card is the best of the next four on your library. The card advantage here is superb, and a fair acknowledgement of just how difficult it’s going to be to consistently land punches here. The deck’s final creature is the Havengul Skaab. Although this one lacks the “Skaab mechanic” of requiring you to exile a creature from your graveyard to play, it has another drawback all its own- an unsummoning effect with each swing. Of course, like other “loner” creatures such as the Demonic Taskmaster, it is immune to its own effect.
Dwell in Oblivion
The noncreature support suite is fairly robust here, and perhaps unsurprisingly outnumbers the creature complement. The tie-in to the loner theme is fairly sparse- only three cards directly enagage with this mechanically. Homicidal Seclusion rewards you for playing only one creature by buffing its stats and giving it lifelink, while Predator’s Gambit gives its creature a static bonus plus intimidate if it’s the only one in play. Finally, Demonic Rising rewards you with a 5/5 evasive body for free each turn you’ve worked down to only having one creature on the battlefield. This is an interesting card, since it actively breaks the very condition that the deck is trying to achieve. That said, a 5/5 flying Demon should help bring things to a satisfactory conclusion in fairly short order.
The deck’s other mechanical subtheme is “high power matters.” You may only have one creature on the board, the reasoning goes, but so long as its the biggest, then good things will happen. For one thing, if you’ve managed to land Triumph of Cruelty, your opponent will be discarding a card every turn until they solve the problem (or the problem solves them). While not competitive (it doesn’t care what your opponent has out), a pair of Essence Harvests can give you a massive life swing if you’ve landed one of your bigger bruisers. The deck also carries a pair of Tormentor’s Tridents to help move things along, while Swiftfoot Boots give haste and that all-important hexproof.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of Solitary Fiends, however, lies in its removal package. From bouncing to tapping to outright killing, Solitary Fiends looks to counteract its vulnerability against chump-blocking by denying its opponent access to blockers in the first place. Both Crippling Chill and Frost Breath can be used to lock down defenders for a couple of turns, while Peel from Reality and Into the Void bounce thing back to hand. Note that Peel returns one of yours as well, which can help trim you down to the requisite number of creatures (read: one). Finally, if you’d rather just up and kill something, you also get a pair of Doom Blades.
Solitary Fiends is a curious construction, with a controlling style you don’t often see in precons. Although dubious on the somewhat shaky-looking construction, we have seen the deck in action before and it is capable of some aggressive wins behind fat threats if the cards line up in its favour. We’ll give it a full and proper playtest, then return with the results!